A touch that never hurts


What is it about touch? Why is it often more personal than sight, friendlier than sound, more reassuring than words? Not all touch is equal, of course, and yet there is a reciprocity to it that the other senses lack: we can speak without being heard, or observe without being seen, but touch is mutually shared -and maybe that is why it is so engaging. There is a communion, however briefly, with someone (or something) that has trespassed inside our otherwise guarded and privileged space; perhaps that accounts for the effect of touch: it can be so intimate. It has the ability to bypass thought; it speaks directly, its purpose is easily understood. And although it can be weaponized -a tool of dominance, or submission- that only demonstrates its silent power.

But even the absence of touch can be intensely felt. The seemingly endless rounds of social isolation and enforced physical distancing during the Covid pandemic has not gone gentle into that good night; there have been unintended, although not entirely unforeseen consequences. Touch is as essential for health as are movement and interaction; it is a quiet fellowship for tactile creatures like us -a message. And despite our undeserved modern hauteur about more primitive, less knowledgeable times, our ancestors still had an unabashed appreciation of the value of touch that transcended even plagues, it seems.

I began to appreciate just how sacred the idea of touch was in those former times when I came across an essay by Una Roman D’Elia, a professor of Art History at Queen’s University in Ontario. It was entitled ‘Belief in touch as salvation was stronger than fear of contagion in the Italian Renaissance’. Unsurprisingly, even in those days, people understood that the ‘plague ravaging the area was contagious.’ https://theconversation.com/belief-in-touch-as-salvation-was-stronger-than-fear-of-contagion-in-the-italian-renaissance-157135

‘That year [1399], in the midst of a plague, often hundreds of people [in the Tuscan city of Pisa] gathered and fought to touch and kiss crucifixes. The belief in touch as salvation was stronger than the fear of contagion…  In the Italian Renaissance, people longed to touch not only each other, but also religious sculptures — touch was a form of devotion.’ Relics -the physical remains either of a saint’s body (such as bones) or of something the saint themselves touched- were deemed holy by proxy and so became a part of a chain of physical contact that led to the divine. Even things that only represented the divine such as sculptures of saints or the holy family were also felt to be worthy of tactile adoration.

I’m certainly not au courant with the social conventions of the time, but it’s easy to understand that the need was powerful: merely touching something which their belief assured them was sacred might well guard them from the terrors of the plague; just being in the presence of something holy to them, or only seeing it nearby drove people to connect with it. A touch was reassuring: it was something physical, something that was able to transfer its power through contact. There was obviously something magic about touch -then and now…

Something of that same reassurance lingers through modern times. We hear of famous works of art, or memorabilia of celebrities going for outrageous sums of money at auctions; possession means they are yours to keep, yours to admire, but especially, yours alone, to touch.

How valuable is the caress of a loved one, the embrace of a child, the consoling hug of a friend in a time of need? How hurtful is the unexplained withdrawal of contact, or the sting of a retributive slap? How does it feel to be elbowed out of the way in a crowd, or be physically bullied at work? The contact -or lack of it- can be either punitive or rewarding -but either way, it sends a message: words don’t have to be involved. And it’s learned at a very early age I discovered when I took my two young children to their first restaurant.

My favourite getaway in those days was to camp in my VW camper-van at Long Beach near the little fishing town of Tofino, B.C. The kids loved running around on the beach and balancing on the big driftwood logs that changed position and appearance after every storm. But sometimes even there, I grew tired of hotdogs and hamburgers cooked on my little propane camp stove; I craved the privilege of being served by someone else and feasting on admittedly expensive seafood; of sitting on an actual chair at an actual table with metal knives and forks and porcelain plates -items for which there was little guilt about their disposal at the end of a meal.

One of my favourite restaurants in those long-ago days was called the Schooner, but I had second thoughts about it as soon as we walked up the sidewalk to its door. We had changed into clean clothes of course, but my kids were young – four and six, I think- and they had never behaved in a MacDonald’s restaurant, let alone in my house on the weekends they spent with me.

I thought perhaps showing up without a reservation might allow me an easy, if embarrassing exit if there were no table available. But as luck would have it, there was a cancellation and we were shown to a table with a clean white table cloth and carefully arranged cutlery.

Catherine, the four year old, went saucer-eyed.  She’d never seen a table cloth at home. Michael, however, merely rolled his eyes at her surprise, but in his silence I could tell he was impressed. In fact, both of them sat bolt upright and still after the waiter had pulled their seats out for them and then produced a menu for each of us.

I had salmon, I remember, and I think each of them opted for halibut and fries after I explained to them that halibut was a delicious type of fish. But what impressed them the most was reading through the menu and making a choice for themselves -like big kids.

But when the dinner was served the waiter cautioned us all that our plates were hot and not to touch them.

Little Catherine was still marvelling at the heavy knives and forks but I could see her staring curiously at the steam rising from the plates. She kept glancing at her brother, and then at me, and then at her plate; the result was entirely predictable: she reached out and touched the plate and immediately put her finger in her mouth.

“That was stupid, Catherine,” was Michael’s equally predictable response. “The waiter said the plate was hot and not to touch it…”

I could see tears, beginning to form in her eyes -more from embarrassment than from pain.

“Are you okay, sweetheart?” I said to reassure her.

She nodded and picked up her fork to sample something on the plate.

But Michael wouldn’t let it go; I was used to the competition. “Why did you do that?” he said, glaring at her. “You could see the smoke…”

“Steam,” I corrected.

“You could see the steam and you heard that it was hot…”

She looked at me for more support and kicked her brother under the table. Then she shrugged. “I just wanted to prove my eyes,” she explained, and stuck out her tongue at him.

Maybe children actually understand more about touch than we think…

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